‘Mindful eating’ like many mindfulness practices has become something of a buzz term in recent years. Mindful eating adopts mindfulness principles to encourage individuals to become more attuned to what their body needs instead of what the mind convinces it that it wants. I am confident that we can all identify with the experience of eating something for the sake of eating it, unconscious of the entire experience. Mindful eating represents the opposite of this type of behaviour. In mindful eating an increased focus on physical rather than psychological cues for food intake is created by guiding individuals to attend to their food in way that allow them to really enjoy it and experience the act of ‘eating it’. For all intents and purposes mindful eating provides a way for us to really enjoy our food all the while preventing us from over-indulging or eating things that may have an adverse effect on how we feel in our bodies. It has been promoted as a way of tackling a number of food related issues including obesity and disordered eating.
There was a research study published in the Nutrition and Health scientific journal recently that discussed the potential limitations of ‘mindful eating’ for weight loss. The study led by Judith C. Anglin, an associate professor of nutrition and director of the dietetics program at Texas Southern University in Houston, examined the direct effectiveness of a ‘mindful eating’ program in comparison to a ‘restricted calorie’ program in terms of overall weight-loss, body mass index, health and metabolism for a small group of obese individuals. What Anglin and her team found was that weight loss occurred for individuals in both programs but filtered off quicker in the ‘mindful eating’ group. This finding caused Anglin and her team to suggest that restrictive dietary measures may be a superior method for weight loss than adopting more mindful eating habits.
Indeed this study contains a number of merits. This was the first study, at least to the author’s knowledge, to compare a weight-loss program based on mindful eating with a program based on restrictive eating for an obese population. The study was a pilot which meant that they utilised a small sample. This means that their demonstration of a clear difference between both program’s effectiveness for weight loss at follow-up may not be a credible justification for a concrete dismissal of the effectiveness of mindful eating for weight loss. Outside of the clear experimental limitations of the study, where this study and many like it falls down, is in the lack of consideration given to the psychological variables involved in eating behaviours. In this instance, the authors neglect to explore the psychological impact that dieting and in particular restrictive dieting can have on individuals overall well-being and long term dietary behaviours.
Eating and in particular disordered eating can often be as much of a psychological process as it is a physical process. Research examining the psychology of eating has yielded several noteworthy and consistent findings that highlight the importance of taking the psychological component of eating into consideration when researching and drawing conclusions about how to treat disordered eating. One finding is that which suggests that an over focus on dietary restriction and weight loss can lead to a number of negative outcomes including an increased likelihood of long term weight gain, increased incidences of mental health difficulties including depression and eating disorders, decreases in self-esteem and increased problems with overall sense of self. In contrast, research exploring the psychological correlates of mindful eating has demonstrated a number of positive consequences. These include suggestions that mindfulness-based interventions may aid longer-term weight loss by modifying entrenched eating behaviours, decrease psychological distress and lead to better overall health behaviours.
By considering these findings it becomes clear that research into the effectiveness of behaviour modification treatments should consider the psychological components that may affect an individual in both the short and long term. Anglin and her team’s conclusions regarding mindful eating highlight how psychological constructs can often be ignored in other areas of health research. This is despite the fact that psychology plays a central role in many health behaviours. How can we expect someone to alter entrenched behaviours like eating, without expecting some psychological involvement? Dietary restriction alone responds to one aspect of the problem. Mindful eating addresses both the physical and psychological components of the problem. Mindful eating may have a somewhat slower or less immediate impact but it acts as a way to buffer to negative effects that dieting can have.
As always there are pros and cons to both approaches and for active change to occur some sacrifices must be made. Mindful eating is something that we should all adopt. Not only does it help to keep us healthy but it also helps us to enjoy our food. For those looking to change their eating habits in order to lose weight, adopting a more mindful approach to eating healthily can help to promote better eating behaviours in the long term and as such should be encouraged. On a broader note, the aforementioned study highlights how claims regarding the effectiveness of particular treatments should be considered with caution, particularly when they fail to acknowledge the psychological effects that may develop or interfere with such treatments.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.